What I loved about The Vision Bleak’s last offering, 2007’s The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey, was its capture and conveyance of the Gothic spirit at no cost to the essence of Heavy Metal. What I feared when I saw the cover and title of the new album, Set Sail to Mystery, was that the German merchants of the macabre had cracked, forgotten all of that, and given themselves up to cheap and expedient theatrical excess. But even if there is no excuse for that cover, it’s the music that matters, and on that front The Vision Bleak hit all their marks with veteran aplomb.
Set Sail to Mystery is a collection of short horror stories voiced with deep, gothic tenor and forwarded with austere heavy metal music. Running a predictable range of topics from the literal consumption of something beautiful (“I Dined with the Swans”) to necrophilia (“A Romance with the Grave”), it’s the master thespian’s attention to detail that makes the not-so-novel telling of terrible tales via heavy metal conduit work so well here. It’s easy to imagine this pair pouring their hearts out on the sound stage to make every word on the record as authentically foreboding or morose as possible in support of the larger motif. And as central as the Goth ethos is to this record, make no mistake that Set Sail is more avant than heavy; its allegiance to the almighty riff is obvious and each is delivered with gratifying weight.
The eight tracks here span just under 45 minutes and fly by in what seems like a lot less than that, mostly because the songs, besides being compelling each in itself, are generously varied and arranged in such a way as to complement and flow freely. An exception might be first track, “A Curse of the Grandest Kind,” which is excerpted from the Lord Byron epic poem, Manfred. As an engrossed read-along intro, it’s tops, but the nearly four minutes of slowly crescendo’d monotonic dramatic voice, horns and kettle drums won’t be long for the casual listens. “Descent into Maelstrom” is an adaptation of the Poe short story of similar title and does well to capture the simple violence of that story’s vortex via hefty riffing, horns and sound effects. And, lo, lest you fear the ommission of Lovecraftian homage (preposterous), know that he’s treated well here with “The Outsider,” an urgent and epic piece that utilizes horns, piano and chiming guitars to great effect in capturing the desperation and horrifying realization of the tale’s protagonist.
Plenty of slowed down and really creepy here, too, with the aforementioned “I Dined with the Swans” and the monolithic mass of doom, “Mother Nothingness (The Triumph Of Ubbo Sathla).” Based on the tale of the ultimate progenitor, itself spawned of Clark Ashton Smith for the Cthulhu Mythos, “…Ubbo Sathla” is one of those songs that just couldn’t better suit its subject. As with many of these tracks, having read the original story gives these songs that much more kick, but it’s hardly necessary, as the music does just fine on its own, thanks.
Keeping in mind that these baleful Bavarians are having a ton of fun making their music, I’m sure they won’t mind my pointing out that there is a bit of comedic naivety in their English lyrics. For example, the narrator of “He Who Paints the Black of Night,” powerdrunk and brimming with hubris, proclaims to all artists who would dare affront his art, I vomit on your junk.
Seriously, though, never mind that goofy cover and give The Vision Bleak a pass on the trite title. Or, better yet, take these for what they are: thespian badges of honor worn proudly by a couple of waggish hams who find great joy in recounting through heavy music the many wonderfully Weird Tales with all the wit and bravado of their literary forebears.